David Zonderjan shows off a bowl of his great Bonen Groenten Soep inside the Tabac Bar

Food, oh glorious food! As we walked among the many shops, each selling some luscious beautifully displayed specialty, I was reminded of Dickens' festive description of London shops at Christmas in his "Christmas Carol" in which Christmas shoppers capered among the mountainous displays of sweets, geese, fruits and breads that seemed to dance on their own! The Dutch take their foods seriously, and after India and the unaccustomed foods of Asia, we went into shock.

In Amsterdam, there were cheese shops with so many cheeses that it made one's head reel at the sight. Just the smell on entry was heavenly. There were fish shops serving up Dutch specialties like pickled herring, meat shops with chorizo (a Mexican sausage) as well as veal and beef, the poulterers, the spice shop, the tea shop, and the coffee shop.

There were greengrocers where one found fruits in colorful pyramids, grapes gleaming, oranges with their bright puckered skins wafting fragrances, apples of every hue from the bright green of a Granny Smith from New Zealand, to delicate yellow and red striped unfamiliar varieties. (They virtually dripped with juice when bitten!) And everything from fresh endive and avocados to carrots both giant and delicate. And always bright red currant berries.

There were confectioners with a bounty so artfully presented it was like going to an edible gallery. Then bakers whose shops smelled ambrosial subdivided in two categories--those that made breads and the like, and those that made special cakes and pastries. We had to search all over Amsterdam to find one of the latter to get a birthday cake for Samantha. It was layers of cake with whipped cream and fresh fruit covered with a layer of pink marzipan. Beautiful and tasty. And from the former, courtesy of our web manager Allen, we discovered stroopwaffels--a deadly-delicious waffled cookie filled with a thick caramel syrup.

At first we were puzzled by the extensive categorization and separation, and then we were grateful. Even with things neatly broken up into separate shops we went into overload. There are a sprinkling of small supermarkets (usually from the chain Albert Heijn), but for the most part things are set up for those who shop with a purpose -- and often. There are no bag boys, and you are expected to bring your own bags. You soon learn the beauty of selecting a few things and shopping for only a day or two at a time, instead of the American custom of provisioning for at least a week at time. After so long without a kitchen we were enchanted in the ritual.

Albert Heijn also provided the girls with entertainment as they weighed produce. They'd put our produce on the scale, and make a matching selection from the computer panel above, which had pictures as well as the name of each type of produce in Dutch. If you decide if you wanted what was in the scale, you'd press a button and out would pop the price label. I'm sure this must exist other places, but it was a new one for us.

We discovered Dutch specialties, such as "Chocomel," the tasty super-pasteurized un-refrigerated chocolate milk that is served cold, room-temperature or hot, and "Vla" a dessert that comes in a milk carton and pours out a slightly liquid, lightly sweet pudding in vanilla or caramel or chocolate (also strawberry, but. . .). Delightful with fresh fruit. And yogurts, and yogurt drinks, and fresh milk that taste wonderful. And THE BEST fruit juice drink, "Dubble Drank," that is pure flavorful nectar. For breakfast, museli (mixed grain cereal, sometimes with nuts and dried fruits) was a must.

As for eating out, it is usually expensive. But it is also usually good. And you can find almost anything you want. Indonesian and Indian restaurants are very popular in Amsterdam, but at this point we opted for a western-style steak house for our splurge. There the servers doubled as dancers doing the "Boot Scoot Boogie"-- what a giggle! And the beef--from the US--was great for knocking the edge off our homesickness. Only the well-trained dogs lurking under their master's tables gave away our location. (Dogs seem to accompany almost everyone in Amsterdam--almost everywhere. We even saw one who was carrying his own bag of groceries!)

The Recipe

There are little taverns, pubs or cafes on nearly every corner, and they all usually serve "toasties" (sandwiches, usually made with a special toasting iron, often filled with melted gouda cheese and other additions such as tomatoes) and soups to go with their beers or coffees. (I note that cups of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate are always flavorful, and always served with a cookie or biscuit. )

The most pervasive soup is "erten soep" or split pea soup. Every place has its own version, and we never had a bad bowl. Our favorite pub, the Tabac, which was right across from our house boat on Browers Graat served not only a good Erten Soep but also a good Bonen Groenten Soep (vegetable bean soup).

Tabac's cook, David Zonderjan, shared his recipes with us. The recipes are almost identical, and depend on a special salty smoked sausage found in Holland (but any good flavorful, salty, smoked sausage can be substituted). David called it knackwurst, but I don't think it was like the knackwurst one finds in the U.S. It was hard for him to give a recipes, since he doesn't seem to make it the same way twice, and the ingredients vary with the season, and amounts are "by feel."

Tabac Bonen Groenten Soep

*Use four cans of brown beans (something like kidney beans) * Two large smoked Dutch sausages, cut into pieces * Four large * beef bullion cubes (Knorr or Magi brands preferred); enough to make 1/2 liter of strong bullion * Salt and pepper to taste * 2 or 3 liters of water * Add a variety of chopped vegetables--whatever is fresh. David always uses onion, leeks, parsley and carrots. This time he also added cauliflower and potatoes.

Simmer about an hour, until the vegetable are soft and the flavors blend together.

For Erten Soep

*Use four 500 gram packages of dried peas * Two large smoked Dutch sausages * Four large beef bullion cubes * Salt and pepper to taste * 2 or three liters of water

You can add vegetables to this too--especially onion, leeks, carrots, garlic, and parsley.

We had trouble with "large bullion cubes." David gets a commercial sized bullion and we couldn't quite translate to the standard domestic size.


Although we did not feel compelled to look for a McDonald's Restaurant for a quick slip into the familiar, there were so many of them it felt like they looked for us. And, since we'd promised that we make the comparison, we found ourselves on one occasion slipping into a familiar booth.

Everything was pretty much the same as what we are used to, but we did note a few differences. First, Styrofoam packaging is still used here -- we guess that the European environmental movement hasn't caught up with them yet. Or perhaps the make up of the styrofoam has changed to something more environmentally sound. And "Happy Meals" and apple pies were back on the menu. As for the local additions, we found chocomel, espresso, cappuccino, doughnuts and a vegetarian burger. (And, it could be our imaginations, but the meat patty on the quarter pounder looked bigger because it really stuck out from the bun.)

It was also the only place we were accosted by beggars -- gypsy children -- moving from table to table. Quite the reverse from India where it was the only place we were free from beggars.
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